The Philippines must immediately return millions of dollars recovered from a high-profile hacking theft, Bangladesh’s ambassador said on Thursday in Manila, but Filipino officials warned resolving the embarrassing case could take months.
On February 5, unidentified hackers shifted $81 million (£56 million) from the Bangladesh central bank’s account with the US Federal Reserve to a nondescript bank in Manila, from where it was funnelled into local casinos.
Filipino authorities now say they have tracked down all but $21 million (£14 million) of the loot, but have only recovered a fraction of it.
Late March, Manila-based Chinese casino promoter Kim Wong, who is under criminal investigation after a portion of the stolen money was traced to his account, began handing over chunks of the stolen cash to Filipino authorities.
Bangladeshi ambassador to Manila, John Gomes, expressed outrage on Thursday that the surrendered funds—now totaling $15 million (£10 million)—had not been returned to Dhaka, nearly two months later.
“It is Bangladesh’s money, so it is our request that this should be followed through,” a visibly upset Gomes said while testifying on Thursday at a Senate public hearing on the case.
The brazen heist highlighted how the Philippines’ banking loopholes and anti-money laundering laws have made the impoverished and corruption-weary Southeast Asian nation a dirty money destination.
Philippine law exempts casino transactions from scrutiny by the country’s anti-money laundering council without a case filed in court.
Wong, the casino junket operator, had earlier told the Senate that two high-rollers from Beijing and Macau shifted the $81 million (£56 million) to dollar accounts at Manila’s Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation.
Wong said he did not know that the money was stolen from Bangladesh and that he merely helped the two men—who are also his casino clients—open bank accounts.
The Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council has filed a suit to gain control of the alleged stolen funds from Wong, the Manila bank and the casinos.
But the council’s executive director Julia Abad testified that the whole process could take at least three to five months for uncontested cases, and potentially years if the ownership were disputed.
“We are doing everything to provide the necessary assistance to the Bangladeshi government to recover the money… We cannot just take the law into our hands,” Abad said.
Ambassador Gomes said there were no other claimants apart from his government for the surrendered money, and he could not understand why the process was taking so long.
He said the Filipino authorities had even invited him to witness the storage of the recovered funds at Manila’s central bank vault.
“We have bilateral relations, and this could happen in Bangladesh also with the Philippine ambassador. How would he be feeling about it?” the envoy said.
“It would be like a slap on my face,” Gomes added.